The BlackBerry Z10 on display after it was launched in New York on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Jan. 30: I’m sorry. I was wrong.
This apology is for the bespectacled student at my talk in Cleveland, and the lady in the red dress in Florida, and anyone else who has recently asked me about the future of the BlackBerry. I told all of them the same thing: that it’s doomed.
That was not an outrageous opinion. The BlackBerry’s share of the smartphone market is a dismal 2.9 per cent, down from 85 per cent a few years ago. Its stock has crashed almost 90 per cent from its 2008 peak. In the last two years, the BlackBerry’s maker, Research in Motion, released a disastrous tablet, laid off thousands of employees and fired its CEO’s. The whole operation seemed to be a sneeze away from total collapse.
The company — which changed its name today to simply BlackBerry — kept saying that it had a miraculous new BlackBerry in the wings with a new operating system called BlackBerry 10.
But it was delayed and delayed and delayed. Nobody believed anything the company said anymore. Besides — even if there were some great phone, what prayer did BlackBerry have of catching up to the iPhone and Android phones now? Even Microsoft, with its slick, quick Windows Phone, has not managed that trick.
Well, BlackBerry’s Hail Mary pass, its bet-the-farm phone, is finally here. It’s the BlackBerry Z10, and guess what? It’s lovely, fast and efficient, bristling with fresh, useful ideas.
And here’s the shocker — it’s complete. The iPhone, Android and Windows Phone all entered life missing important features. Not this one; BlackBerry could not risk building a lifeboat with leaks. So it’s all here: a well-stocked app store, a music and movie store, Mac and Windows software for loading files, speech recognition, turn-by-turn navigation, parental controls, copy and paste, Find My Phone (with remote-control lock and erase) and on and on.
The hardware is all here, too. The BlackBerry’s 4.2-inch screen is even sharper than the iPhone’s vaunted Retina display (356 pixels per inch versus 326). Both front and back cameras can film in high definition (1080p back, 720p front).
The thin, sleek, black BlackBerry has 16 gigabytes of storage, plus a memory-card slot for expansion. Its textured back panel pops off easily so that you can swap batteries.
Some of BlackBerry 10’s ideas are truly ingenious. A subtle light blinks above the screen to indicate that something — a text, an email message, voice mail, Facebook post — is waiting for you.
Without even pressing a physical button, you swipe up the screen; the Lock screen lifts like a drape as you slide your thumb, revealing what’s underneath. It’s fast and cool.
There are no individual app icons for Messages or Mail. Instead, all communication channels of (including Facebook, Twitter and phone calls) are listed in the Hub — a master in-box list that appears at the left edge when you swipe inward. Each reveals how many new messages await and offers a one-tap jump into the corresponding app. It’s a one-stop command centre that makes eminent sense.
The BlackBerry’s big selling point has always been its physical keyboard. The company says it will, in fact, sell a model with physical keys (and a smaller screen) called the Q10.
But you might not need it. On the all-touchscreen model, BlackBerry has come up with a mind-bogglingly clever typing system. Stay with me here:
As you type a word, tiny, complete words appear over certain on-screen keys — guesses as to the word you’re most likely to want. If you’ve typed “made of sil”, for example, the word “silicone” appears over the letter I key, “silver” over the V, and “silk” over the K. You can fling one of these words into your text by flicking upward from the key — or ignore it and keep typing.
How well does it work? In this passage, the only letters I actually had to type are shown in bold. The BlackBerry proposed the rest: “I’m going t have to cancel for tonight. There is a really good episode of Dancing With the Stars .” I type 20 characters; it typed 61 for me.
But wait, there’s more. The more you use the BlackBerry, the more it learns your way of writing. When I tried that same passage later, I typed only one letter: the I in “I’m”.
Thereafter, the phone predicted each successive word in those sentences, requiring no letter-key presses at all. Freaky and brilliant and very, very fast.
There’s speech recognition, too. Hold in the Play/Pause key to get the Z10’s Siri-like assistant. Siri-like in concept, that is — you can say “send an email to Harvey Smith”, “schedule an appointment” and a few other things — but it’s slower, less accurate and far narrower in scope. You can also speak to type, but the accuracy is so bad, you won’t use it.
The camera software is terrific. One feature, Time Shift, is mind-blowing. You take a photo of people — then, with your finger on a face, you can dial forward or backward up to two seconds in time, seeking that perfect expression. You repeat with the next face, and the next, until you’ve dialled up the perfect fraction of a second, independently, for each person in the shot. Admit it: that’s brilliant.
The BlackBerry 10 neatly solves a huge problem for corporate techies: how to keep employees’ work phones secure in a world where people also use their phones for personal things. If a company has BlackBerry’s corporate software suite, they can create separate worlds on each phone: personal and work, with distinct calendars, address books, wallpaper and even app collections. They appear together — but without the work password, only the personal stuff is visible.